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Saturday, 26 December 2015

Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Warning: This review contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film yet please do not read.

After many months of anticipation The Force Awakens has finally been released! I grew up watching Star Wars and playing Star War: Battlefront so I was very excited to see this film. Luckily I managed to keep both my love for Star Wars and my nostalgia under control, which I may have failed to do for Jurassic World giving it too high a rating. Before I start the review I just want to say it does contain some spoilers, I've managed to cut out most of them but there are still a few so please do not read if you have yet to see the film.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi the remnants of the Galactic Empire have formed the First Order led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who is locked in combat with the New Republic as well as looking for the Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has vanished. A new Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is trying to find Skywalker while renegade Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and the mysterious scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) must try and find him first. Most of the criticisms that I've seen of the film and which I have myself is how similar the plot resembles that of the original installment. A small band of rebels learning about the force while avoiding a masked Sith Lord taking orders from a shadowy figure and destroying planets is almost a direct copy of the original film. Here I felt J.J. Abrams and the other writers were too cautious opting for a story that we all know and love instead of trying something new. It was also a perfect opportunity to introduce the stories from the Expanded Universe rather than going for a tried and tested plot.

However the plot is still good nevertheless. It is clear that Abrams took inspiration from the original film but the plot is not a rehash of the original. Events have new meanings, characters are vastly different from their original counterpart (Rey for one is a much stronger character compared to Luke in the original film) and there are countless plot points added which both make the film exciting and unique. We have to remember though how similar the plots to Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are (Luke saving a friend with Leia/Han, seeing a Jedi Master who trained him die with Obi Wan/Yoda, the Alliance going into a space battle to destroy the Death Star as Luke goes one on one against Vader in either a X-Wing or lightsaber). The Force Awakens does have a downside that it bears more resemblance to the original film but it has so much new content for us to overlook this.

My biggest worry for the film was going to be the acting ability of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega due to this film being their first major film. They portrayed some of the best acting in the film. Boyega effectively portrayed someone who is finally free from oppression after years as a Stormtrooper while simultaneously portraying someone tormented by military combat. One scene in a canteen when he describes to Rey why he is running it felt like I was watching a gritty Vietnam War film. His effortless shift from a quasi-comic relief to a tormented veteran was fantastic. Daisy Ridley equally became her onscreen character and stole the film in my opinion. Her character is especially well written and combined with Ridley's acting Rey became a strong willed character with a mysterious past which we want know about. Quite often in films the 'mysterious past' trope can become repetitive but Rey's well written character and Ridley's acting allowed this trope to become engaging once more. As stated earlier Rey is a far stronger character than Luke Skywalker in the original film and is comparable to Luke in Empire Strikes Back. Also the fact that Rey is the main character is a bonus as the sci-fi genre has a stark lack of female main characters (with possibly Serenity being the most notable sci-fi film to have a female lead) so Rey being so well acted as well is a good point for the film. A final point to make about Finn and Rey is that a actually liked the will-they-or-won't-they plot point. Normally I hate this in films, with the exception of Pacific Rim where they didn't, but it seemed natural thanks to their acting ability (and the writing) so it managed to revitalize another dying movie trope.

Now for what we all wanted in the film: the original cast. Harrison Ford was excellent as Han Solo. His acting in this film was far better than the acting in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. It felt that he had just come back from doing Return of the Jedi rather than his acting in Indiana Jones where he had to portray Dr Jones but old. Likewise his interaction with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) seemed natural. When he said 'Chewie. We're back' it actually felt that they were truly back. Carrie Fisher as Leia was very good as well. It felt that she portrayed Leia as an actual rebellion leader who has had years of fighting against the Dark Side. I like how she is called General Leia this time showing that she has actual authority and a direct role in the rebellion which I must give Abrams credit for. Finally we have Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. He is not in the film for very long and criticisms of the film that I've seen largely talk about how little he is in the film. I disagree with this. His little screen time in the film fits perfectly with his role as a mysterious Jedi Master. Hamill though is still very good as an elderly Skywalker, he uses his little time on screen effectively and manages to show with facial expressions that he does have power. He felt like Alec Guiness as Obi Wan in the original film.

Finally we have the villains. Domhnall Greeson as General Hux is quite formidable. He captures the essence that Peter Cushing had as Grand Moff Tarkin and made it his own. He effectively plays a radical with too much power and the ability to wield such power. I eagerly await seeing him in future installments. Serkis is good at playing Snoke however he felt too much like the Emperor. Whether it was writing or the small amount of screen time that he had to flesh out his character Snoke just felt to be a computer generated version of the Emperor. Serkis however has to be commended for actually creating this effect to begin with. Adam Driver is most of the time good as Kylo Ren. While he has his mask on he portrays an aura of menace and power. He honestly feels intimidating. Not as intimidating as Vader but he does feel like a true antagonist which is always good. However when he takes off his mask his acting dips somewhat. By no means bad it feels weaker compared to the other actors and when he has his mask on. He seemed nervous (likely due to the other actors having the benefit of going through the entire film lacking a mask) and it sometimes shows in his performance. It does have some good points (a possible spoiler ahead). His confrontation with his father is moderately well acted and subtly done which works well. It is far better compared to Hayden Christianson as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels and considering this is Driver's first major role he has to be commended for not ruining the performance by overacting. 

The effects are possibly the best effects in a film of this year with only Mad Max: Fury Road competing with it. My biggest issue with Jurassic World was it basically a CGI movie. Abrams for The Force Awakens combined CGI with practical effects. He knew when it was right to use CGI and when it was right to use practical effects. Chewbacca, R2 D2, C-3PO and Admiral Ackbar are men in suits instead of computer generated images. The image above was done through animatronics. Several ships were large props. This injected a sense of believability into the atmosphere of the film helping the audience engage further. It is far easier to get caught up in a world where practical effects are used compared to one entirely created thanks to a computer. Abrams experience with the Star Trek franchise paid off here also as by balancing the CGI/Practical effect ratio when CGI was used it was engaging. The CGI itself was breathtaking. TIE Fighter and X-Wing dogfights as well as a dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and TIE Fighters made it seem as if we were there. Overall the effects department created a believable galaxy far far away.

This film felt much more like a Star Wars film than any of the prequels. Focusing more on plot than flashy effects Abrams managed to recreate the Galaxy. Also the effects mirrored that of the originals with some added polish so we honestly felt that this was a continuation of the Star Wars universe. George Lucas has stated that he imagined and tried to make the Empire like a fascist state. Abrams captured this idea perfectly. The First Order felt like a totalitarian state (even with the name) and their purge of the village at the start of the film felt like footage from the Second World War of Nazi atrocities. Greeson's portrayal of Hux felt like I was watching a Nazi leader and at one part he gives a speech in front of red flags with Stormtroopers saluting. Abrams perfectly captured the fascist element of the Empire. Likewise Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca being almost folk heroes, with Skywalker going as far as to be a legend, fits perfectly in with the atmosphere. It makes sense that their feats would earn them so much reverence and Skywalker being the last Jedi it makes sense to make him a legendary figure. Finally the use of special effects made it feel that we were in the Star Wars universe.

Overall I enjoyed The Force Awakens. The most zealous critics I've seen of the film can be roughly characterized into three groups: less open-minded people (who immediately disliked the film due to Finn and Rey being the main characters), original elitists (who immediately disliked the film because of a rose-tinted view of the original and animosity towards Disney) and sci-fi haters (this one was identified by a close friend of mine who I agree with. The people who have not seen the franchise a immediately hate on the film due to it being 'nerdy'). Of course all the other critics (in fact over 90% of them) do not fit into any of these categories and their criticisms are very valid such as the increased humor, repetition of the original plot and certain plot points and these criticisms do weigh down the film. I find it a shame that the zealous critics now have silenced the level headed critics of the film as now it is harder for them to give across their views. I would give this film 8/10. It effectively captured the feel of the Star Wars universe with well written characters and fantastic effects. 

Thanks for reading.

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